In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Wall Street journalist and author, Terry Teachout traces Mr. Armstrong's youthful journey through the winding streets of New Orleans at the turn of 20th century: from the jook joints and bordellos to a Christian boys home for wayward youth and a solitary, but beneficent Jewish home to the highest pinnacles of musical and artistic success. This was a biography that was done right.
*Why another biography?
**Two (2) historically unanswered questions about Louis Armstrong
***A brief review of Armstrong's Life
****Louis Armstrong vs. Miles Davis and Nat King Cole
*Before I read a biography, I typically find myself struggling internally like two wrestlers wanting the dominant position because biographies and, especially, autobiographies are rarely truthful or forthcoming. I generally ask myself, "Do I really want to know this person?" Or, "Will this person's life-experiences really provide me with constructive and, hopefully, universal information for my own use?"
The dilemma becomes a lot more complicated, if the person is well known and many things have already been written about her/him. What's new here that hasn't been written before considering Mr. Armstrong, himself, wrote three autobiographical volumes?
**With regards to Mr. Armstrong, there are two (2) questions that have never been answered to my satisfaction (but then, who am I to make such demands anyway?) but I'll still ask.
1. What is it about "Louie Armstrong," The Performer, which made him so beloved that even a Wall Street Journal writer would consider chronicling another chapter of his life, four decades since his passing?
2. What is it about Louis Armstrong, the Man, whose image made him a reviled figure by many of his younger contemporaries such as Miles Davis and several "liberal" media outlets?
In order for this to be worth my time and money, Mr. Teachout would have to answer all of these questions in addition to filling in a lot of missing details of Armstrong's life along the way.
The first thing that should be noted is that Mr. Teachout uses the indefinite article, "A" in the title instead of "The" to define Mr. Armstrong's life, as if to suggest that there were more than one life that Mr. Armstrong lived. Reading through this page-turner, however, one does wonder, whom did all of these other Armstrong biographers write about? And, by the end of this book, it becomes abundantly clear that "the" Louis Armstrong of people's memory is not the man we're introduced to here.
***New Orleans, at the turn of the twentieth century, was the urban hotspot south of the Mason-Dixon where Southerners sojourned from their Antebellum "hospitality," where a pool of inexpensive labor swelled the regions population fourfold in a decade and where European tourists converged into the landscape of a new kind of American existence called "Creole." It was also the place where Roman Catholics and Protestants waged an aggressive and unrelenting immoral political campaign against each other and one of the few places where prostitution was legalized. New Orleans was called the "eccentric cousin" in the South. If this was the New Orleans Kate Chopin painted so eloquently in The Awakening, then Louis Armstrong's childhood is nothing less than a page out of Tom Sawyer.
It was during this time of Louis Armstrong's youth that Armstrong's parents separated and left him with a relative. After a brief reconciliation and a sister followed, Armstrong's father abandoned the family for good leaving Armstrong's mother, Mayann, to turn to prostitution.
Armstrong had a run in with the law and spent some time at the Colored Waif's Home For Boys. This was where Armstrong was first heard playing the horn, marking his initiation into the world of Dixieland/Creole Jazz. He would play various functions and engagements before Joe "King" Oliver moved to Chicago, eventually inviting him to join "The Hot Five" in the Windy City. The adult life of Louis Armstrong was about to begin.
While in Chicago, Armstrong would meet his second wife, Lillian "Lil" who was also in Oliver's band. During this middle period, after Lil took over the reigns of Armstrong's career, he was now fronting and developing his own distinct style of showmanship, which mixed vaudevillian humor with "Big Band" and Swing jazz. Wildly popular, such casual and informal interaction with the band and the audience was something completely new and certainly not to be expected from a "colored" performer. This, I suspect, is where the perception of Armstrong being an accommodationist began.
Armstrong would slowly gain fame throughout Europe as offers to take his act to film awaited him at home. There were many firsts for Armstrong: he shared top billing with Bing Crosby in "Pennies From Heaven." He made, according to Teachout, the first "concept" album "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy" seven months before Sinatra made his landmark album, In The Wee Small Hours (1955). Along the way, Armstrong married and divorced twice.
His later years were spent making albums for Decca, Columbia and Verve. The last of which he was reunited with his most famous duet partner, Ella Fitzgerald.
****Louis Armstrong was one of the early pioneers of jazz. But, there's a line of demarcation within this genre. On one side, you have the Swing/big band/ vocals by people like Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day and Nat King Cole.
On the other side, you had the lesser-known, underground "lounge lizard" jazz. This style of jazz, unlike its counterpart was marked by its somber and sometimes morbid tonality. This existential presentation was set against the Showmanship-style of Armstrong. And, within this group you had Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and many more.
(There were some in the middle ground who were respected by both groups of jazz enthusiasts: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington and, maybe, Billie Holiday. I should throw Ray Charles in this group, but he seems to be an enigma.)
This is an important distinction because of the implications of calling Armstrong a sellout. The way Bob Marley was to Reggae, so was Armstrong to Jazz: he was the first national and international ambassador of his genre. The implications of this is hard to imagine considering we're talking close to 90 years since his fame spread from the riverboat bandstands of New Orleans to gangland threats he suffered in Chicago to the home he shared with Lucille in Queens, New York. 90 years ago. A period after the Reconstruction, but still in the heat of segregation and rapid discrimination still ruled the day.
If you're a pioneer in your field, as Armstrong no doubt was, and with an audience that was spellbound by your music and charisma, what responsibilities do you have if one (1), you have no formal education. Two (2), you're living in a midst of the deep South where by conservative estimates state that there was one lynching everyday in the decade of 1910. Three (3), you have a family before you're 20. And, four (4), you're "colored."
Now, it didn't help that he'd eventually co-starred in films that had less than flattering images of African-Americans. It also must be said in Armstrong's defense, that he was the first to insist on integration. Teachout tells of quite a few instances where Armstrong lashes out at racial discrimination in his shows. His bands were always integrated. He played with those who genuinely loved to play his style of music.
I would suggest that what Armstrong did in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century is precisely what Muhammad Ali did in the 1960's, which was he presented himself as a goodwill ambassador. He had his limitations (as all of us do) and all things being equal, disparaging remarks by Miles Davis and, unfortunately, Dizzy Gillespie should be considered the harbingers for a small, isolated group of younger musicians who didn't have the life experiences that would enable them to embrace such a broad cross section of humanity. It was a lethal concoction of ignorance and jealousy that slandered this great man: plain and simple.
To deny something obvious is one thing, to refuse to allow that which is obvious to determine the course of one's behavior is quite another. He never denied racism and he never accepted it as to determine whom he'd play with and whom he'd play for. The same can't be said of Nat King Cole, unfortunately.
*****Rarely has a biography so gripped my imagination for the past two weeks as Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong has. Terry Teachout should be commended for his erudition albeit laudatory biography of the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.